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JULY 29, 2007: Seventeenth Sunday of the Year

Readings: 

Genesis 18:20-32
Colossians 2:12-14
Luke 11:1-13

Fertility cults are a constant problem in Scripture. Prophets condemn them. Laws are created to deal with them. Our sacred authors warn us not to engage in them. Though most of the passages relating to these rituals are in the Hebrew Scriptures, the beliefs underlying such practices continue to surface in the Christian Scriptures.

The name implies these rites have something to do with fertility: an increase in children, crops, and herds. But the concept goes deeper than the specific goal of those who employ them.

Fertility cult systems teach and practice actions, words and rituals geared to control the gods from whom favors are being sought. Many individuals believe if they use certain magic actions and specific secret words in the proper order and repeat them the correct number of times, the gods will be forced to give them what they want.

Some years ago a German doctoral student wrote a paper on the subject. She compared fertility cults to modern TV and radio commercials. Within 28 seconds, we're assured certain toothpaste, a specific deodorant, or a special car will guarantee us a happy, fulfilled life. Like fertility cults, such commercials supply simple answers for complicated questions.

Our sacred authors insist that, at times, God's answers are as complicated as our questions. The writers come down hard on anyone who attempts to control God instead of relate to God. It's an understatement to say interpersonal relationships are complicated. All married couples quickly discover it's far easier to control than to relate. Some actually give into the temptation and spend their marriage in the control mode.

Today's three readings were written for people who have given up control and are trying to relate with God, even in those moments when they're attempting to get something from God.

In our well-known Genesis passage, Abraham's relationship with Yahweh opens the door for negotiations over how many "innocent" people must be found in Sodom and Gomorrah before Yahweh will spare those cities from destruction. Not lost on the original readers is the understanding that the "outcry" Yahweh is investigating revolves around the practice of fertility cults. The moral of the pericope is that relating accomplishes more with God than controlling.

Writing to the Colossians, Paul zeroes in on the most basic truth of early Christianity. Long before "confession" came into existence, the Apostle teaches that our sins are forgiven because the person who committed those sins is no longer alive. That person died when he or she became one with the risen Jesus. The new person who came into existence at that point is not responsible for the dead person's transgressions. God doesn't forgive us because we can successfully maneuver our way through a sacred ritual, but because we've merged with the personality of Jesus, the new creation in our lives.

Luke's Jesus presumes our relationship with God, and God's relationship with us must be before our eyes whenever we pray. Though experts agree this version of the "Lord's Prayer" is older and more original than the Matthean version we normally use, even here the petitions are surrounded by Jesus' assurance that God isn't playing a game of "Red Rover" with us. We don't have to say the proper words to get what we want. If human parents and friends can be moved to action because of their relationship with us, so can God.

But notice what God gives: the Holy Spirit. We can never forget that the Holy Spirit is the force in our lives which tells us what to ask God for in the first place.